Originally created 05/18/99

Council denies casino annex request



In a surprise reversal Monday, the North Augusta City Council handily turned down a request by video poker magnate Jimmy Martin to annex his new 100-machine casino within the city limits.

Mr. Martin, no relation to City Administrator Charles Martin, and property co-owner Joseph Kinsey had requested annexation of property at the intersection of West Martintown Road and Interstate 20, where the casino is under construction. They almost got what they wanted.

The unanimous no vote was a stunning change from two previous votes when Councilmen Don Smith, Kent Sullivan, Phil Mottel and Ken McDowell formed a majority in support of Mr. Martin's request.

But at Monday night's council meeting before a packed crowd of video poker opponents, the four bowed to public opinion and joined Mayor Lark Jones and Councilwomen Carolyn Baggott and Pat Carpenter in opposition.

"North Augusta is not about video poker. We are a godly people. That's what we're about," Dr. Randy Cooper said to loud applause from the audience.

"North Augusta is about family, it's about children and it's about community," he said.

Dr. Cooper, a lifelong resident of North Augusta, urged the council to preserve the city's character.

"You haven't compromised yet, but if you take in video poker, you will be compromised," he said.

North Augusta has been in the forefront of opposition to video poker since voters in a 1992 statewide referendum banned the gaming machines in a dozen South Carolina counties, including Aiken County. The resulting legislation banning the gaming machines was declared unconstitutional because the state law called for criminal penalties against video poker operators in these counties.

The court held that it was unconstitutional for the machines to be illegal in some counties and not in others.

At that time, North Augusta and the rest of the county were forced to allow operation of gaming establishments.

At present, the only lawful instruments of control by either county or city ordinances are zoning regulations and building codes. North Augusta developed and strictly enforces a Commercial 5 zone that allows video poker only in a property wedge along Atomic Road. The property on Frontage Road would have come into the city limits under the Commercial 5 designation.

It was to exert some control over the gambling machines on the city's border that the four council members said they voted for annexation.

"On my two previous votes, I had North Augusta's interests at heart in trying to protect the I-20 corridor," Mr. Mottel said.

Mr. Smith said his vote was a practical one and an attempt to gain some control over a business that would be built on the site regardless of how the decision went.

"This is no longer a practical issue but an emotional issue," he said. "It has become a matter of community pride."

Mr. Martin also owns the largest gambling casino operating in Aiken County.

The 100-game casino operates on the fringe of North Augusta's city limits in 19,000 square feet of leased spaced in a building once occupied by the Old America Store on U.S. Highway 1.

Mr. Martin presented the annexation request and preliminary plans in March for the casino now under construction on Frontage Road at the western boundary of the city. At the time, he said the council's decision on annexation would not affect his plans to open the casino.

Pat Willis covers North Augusta, Horse Creek Valley and Edgefield County for The Augusta Chronicle. She can be reached at (803) 279-6895 or scbureau@augustachronicle.com